If for no other reason than they push the talk-show format in opposite, extreme directions, both The Late Late Show with Tom Snyder and Charles Grodin should be considered welcome successes. These shows rub against the all-too-familiar grain of irony that characterizes the great Letterman, and the less-great-in-descending-order Jon Stewart, Greg Kinnear, and Conan O'Brien. Snyder has done what he said he'd do: reproduce his low-key CNBC show at CBS. Grodin has done what we hoped (and sorta feared) he'd do: expand his self-parodying loutishness in making the move from talk-show guest to host.
In both cases, the results are yielding terrific television. How refreshing it was to see Snyder, in recognition of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, force a major network to pay attention to the remarks of King's daughter, the Reverend Bernice King, or on another night, give former surgeon general Joycelyn Elders another chance to speak her mind. This sort of serious yet lively discussion had utterly disappeared from network television until now. Unlike his talk-show colleagues, Snyder chats as if he actually reads newspapers, and it informs his questions. On the other hand, I never thought I'd be transfixed by a talk show whose guest lineup consisted of Dixie Carter and Mel Tormé, but Grodin's Jan. 17 edition turned this occasion into a rollicking exchange between relaxed, gossipy showbiz pros.
Right now, it's still unclear just where Grodin is going as he settles into replacing Snyder in his CNBC time slot. As a guest on Letterman and, earlier, Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, Grodin excelled at the rude put-on, provoking reaction by seeming to appear angry or offended by his host. Now sitting in the opposite chair, Grodin frequently ignores his guest and gasses on about himself. When novelist Jackie Collins was a recent guest, Grodin launched into an endless autobiographical anecdote and the cameraperson, perhaps out of sheer boredom, showed us a shot of Collins while Grodin went on yakking.
When Grodin stopped his story and snapped, ''Can I have the camera, please?'' the camera quickly returned to his petulant mug. I was loving every second of this and didn't care whether Grodin was truly miffed or faking it. I don't know how long he can sustain the sort of poker-faced performance art he's practicing on Charles Grodin, but I'll be there rooting for him. You've gotta love a guy who can say to Charlton Heston, ''If I'm being unfair, that's kind of my goal.''
Thus far, the ratings for these two shows are minimal Grodin's scarcely quantifiable, Snyder's dependent upon a vicious, head-to-head tussle with Conan O'Brien to attract the measly 2 percent of the nation's TV sets tuning in. So in a way, their ratings are also irrelevant. In a fractured, talk-show-sated world, there ought to be room for stubborn eccentrics like Snyder and Grodin to thrive. The Late Late Show With Tom Snyder:A- Charles Grodin: B+